Kiev — (JTA) — As I stood as one of the few Americans among the masses of protesters at Kiev’s Independence Square, the frigid cold reminded me that this was my fourth year trying to survive a harsh Ukrainian winter.
The crowd seemed be warming up thanks to the incessant chants – and hot breath – that kept emerging from the hundreds of thousands of throats on hand: “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to its heroes!”
I wasn’t sure whether to join in. This chant has a history. It’s the rallying cry of Ukrainian nationalists and was popularized by Ukrainian militias during World War II who fought the Russians and collaborated in Nazi atrocities against Jews. But now it was being used to protest a corrupt Ukrainian government drifting away from the West and into Russia’s orbit.
Standing there with a kippah hidden under my warm winter hat and my tzitzit well tucked in, I could tell my Jewish Ukrainian friends and I we were struggling with the same question. How do you express patriotism when the nationalism associated with your country has such a horrible history? Did our presence demand that we chant a slogan once anathema to our grandparents?
We were there to show our love for Ukraine, a country that molded me into the man and Jew that I have become. And the protests, which began as pro-Western demonstrations, have come to symbolize the desire for dignity in a country where the aristocracy rules and cracks in the social safety net could swallow whole villages.
When I first told my friends and family that I was going to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine, they were less than enthusiastic. It wasn’t exactly a conventional path for a Jewish day school graduate from New Jersey.
Some of my relatives painted pictures of pogroms chasing me around every bend and begged me not to go. But I wanted to do something different, and my deep shtetl nostalgia led me to the former Pale of Settlement.
On my first night in my village of Boyarka, in June 2010, Mikolya, the barrel-chested farmer that lived next door and principal of the local school, asked me if I wanted to go to church on Sunday. I hesitated. No, I told him, I will not go to church because I am a Jew.
“Oh,” he replied. “We don’t have any of them here.”